The CCP’s Legitimacy Concern

The CCP’s effort towards stability costs not only money, but also something invisible yet fundamental: its legitimacy.

ccp-legitamacyWhile the Chinese people are projected as indifferent to politics, or as would rather not to challenge higher authorities even when not satisfied, little does the rest of the world know that the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) spends as much, if not more, as they do on military to weiwen or “maintain stability.” This sophisticated movement, decidedly, has nipped many possible political crises in the bud, but also implies the CCP’s concern about its legitimacy of governance.

The Tiananmen Square massacre in 1989 has been perhaps the most remarkable protest in the history of People’s Republic of China (PRC). The incident started out as a popular mourning by young university students for Hu Yaobang. Yaobang was a former Communist Party General Secretary who had been known as a liberal reformer and was purged in the power struggles over the trajectory of China’s economic reform. He later brewed a popular demonstration against limited career prospects, political corruption, and the Party’s suppression on freedom of speech.

This incident rapidly escalated into nation-wide protests. The government ordered troops with assault rifles and tanks to suppress the protests, leading to thousands of casualties on unarmed civilians, most of who were college students. The military mobilization and the resulting impact were unprecedented in the then four decade history of the PRC. Tiananmen Massacre marks a watershed of the CCP’s governing strategy to maintain stability: since then, Beijing has adopted a more forceful approach towards any kind of protest that would challenge the CCP.

In recent years, the focus of weiwen has been shifted more to stifling grassroots efforts and has developed a variety of localized approaches for emerging and more advanced contexts. Local “stability maintaining” agencies known as weiwenban, undertake the responsibilities to oversee local public opinion, coordinate other agencies, resolve disputes, and prevent legal proceedings and petitions (sometimes even through coercive strategies).

A well-known case was the persecution towards the Chinese blind civil rights activist Chen Guangcheng, who, after rounds of negotiations, eventually obtained the permission from the Chinese government and departed for New York City amid sustained international attention.

Why does political stability matter to a country? And why does political stability matter to a governing party?

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The answers to the two questions are separate and by no means mutually exclusive. Political stability provides the necessary conditions for a country’s economic growth, sustainable development and social progress, which should be a public good that’s enjoyed by all. However, the concept of political stability manipulated by the CCP contributed to the intensification of its authoritarianism.

The coercive, top-down approaches and the willingness to resort to organs of state security to crack down protests show that political stability is something that’s needed for the CCP to maintain its governance at the cost of people’s freedom. Therefore, it is justifiable to say that political stability in this case is a private good that’s enjoyed only by a few elites through the exploitation and extraction of others.

What is the cost of stability in China then? The cost of stability goes beyond pure numbers, or any way to quantify it, and well towards people’s questioning of the CCP’s legitimacy.

What is legitimacy? Legitimacy is the popular acceptance of an authority, usually a governing law or regime. Insufficient legitimacy leads to social instability, and the efforts to maintain stability further undermine the legitimacy, which is like a vicious cycle. Although proving the legitimacy is the ultimate goal of every government, it doesn’t seem to be possible for the CCP to achieve in the short-term.

Some political science students argue that the authoritarian regime will survive as long as its economy maintains robust momentum. However, this neglects the fundamental importance legitimacy is to a regime, no matter what the regime type. Legitimacy will get in the way as societies develop more economically and politically, and the authenticity vacuum will play an increasingly negative role if a society is more developed. Tremendous transaction costs, for instance, will be incurred from dysfunctional institutions if the CCP tries to get things done while skipping the legitimacy.

Finally, does stability matter? Absolutely. But the way to enforce stability should definitely not include coerciveness, censorship and the repression on human freedom. The CCP’s effort towards stability costs not only money, but also something invisible yet fundamental: its legitimacy.

Ariel Sun is an MA student in International Relations at New York University where she focuses on political economy. She has a regional interest in China.